Violet Swan, the luminous centerpiece of Deborah Reed’s Pale Morning Light With Violet Swan, finds herself at age ninety-three closing down on life, still active as a renowned abstract artist and doted on by her son, Francisco, and his wife, Penny. Yet when an earthquake upends her idyllic community in coastal Oregon, Violet and her family are forced to confront some complicated truths that have long been ignored. Matters are further complicated with the arrival of Violet’s grandson, who brings with him his own secrets that force Violet to reckon with traumatic events of her past, the details of which her family is unaware. Through it all, Reed charts the ever-shifting family relationships with wit and compassion, nimbly jumping between past to present, and constructing one of 2020’s most memorable characters with the enigmatic and ethereal Violet. Critics and authors alike have praised Pale Morning Light with Violet Swan. Booklist hailed it as “a poised, multilayered portrait of a complex life,” and Margaret Renkl called it “a beautiful, shimmering, heart-lifting testament to the power of memory and love and art.” Reed, who also owns the Cloud & Leaf bookstore in Manzanitas, Oregon, spoke to Brendan Dowling on November 18, 2020.
Violet is such a compelling character who has lived a truly extraordinary life. What was your entry point for her?
There were a couple of things. I knew that I wanted to write a novel about an artist. I initially didn’t know if she’d be a painter or a sculptor, but I wanted it to be some kind of a fine art. I’ve always been a fan of Agnes Martin’s work. The deceptively simplistic painting that Agnes Martin did is well known for evoking harmony and joy and happiness in the viewer. It’s a type of abstract painting that evokes feeling rather than a cerebral puzzling of what does it mean. So often abstract art critics talk about what it means, and with Agnes Martin it was, “How does it make you feel?” That really resonated with me as far as what I wanted my character to be offering the world, because she had lived through so many things that could easily have made her bitter and angry. I thought it would be meaningful and profound if I could have her offering up these feelings of contentment through her artwork.
The other part is the initial seed that was planted when I first started thinking about writing this book. Several years ago, I found out that my great-grandfather was a whiskey runner during Prohibition. Out of the blue one day I had this cousin call me—he had heard I was a writer—and he told me all these family stories, but that was the one that really struck me. I looked it up online and sure enough, he ran a whiskey still out of his basement during Prohibition. He did it with his oldest son, who was an adult and had an infant daughter. The still exploded and it ended up killing the infant daughter, so both my great grandfather and my great-uncle went to prison. My grandmother, who was a young child in the house at the time, was sent to live with her older sister, who was married. That’s where she grew up and that’s who raised her.
When I heard that story I kept thinking about what my grandmother’s life might have been like had it gone differently, had she been injured and marked for life, like Violet was. Or had she been left in that house with a stepmother who didn’t care for her and a father in prison, just the shadow over the family of this death of this young baby. My grandmother was such a kind and gentle soul. My own father didn’t even know that his mother had lived through that. My dad was almost eighty when we found out. That was another thing, how families keep secrets for a lifetime and nobody knows! You look at them differently when you know what they’ve been through. It’s a bit of a shock to find out that someone who’s spent their lifetime offering up something that gives the world harmony actually has been deeply traumatized. It adds a whole other level of appreciation for the work and the person themself.
We also dive into the lives of Violet’s son, daughter-in-law, and grandson. What went into creating the lives of people who make up the family of a celebrated artist?
I’m always interested in and write about the family dynamic. I think that it’s fraught with so much drama and so many different dynamics at play at the same time. This is where we work out our deepest troubles and triumphs and become who we’re going to be, all within this family arena. So often within that realm, people don’t get to be seen for who they think they are. Like how when we grow up and come home for the holidays, we turn back into whatever role we played in that family. The same arguments come up again. It’s hard to resolve those issues and so I’m always fascinated by people who can resolve them. I came from a family with a lot of conflict. Even though I’ve been married, divorced, remarried, and I have two kids, I’ve still managed to create a life for myself and my children and my ex. We’re all very close and very friendly. It just astonishes me that you can pull it off! (laughs)
The family dynamic has been at the core of all the books that I’ve written. For this book in particular, I really wanted to explore the role of women and parenthood and men in parenthood. I flipped Violet’s role, allowing her—especially for a woman in the mid-century—to become a successful artist and for her husband to take the back burner. He was interested in art, too, and he ends up becoming the caretaker of the child and basically her caretaker. Then her son and daughter-in-law take over that role when her husband dies. That almost never happens for a woman. For a male artist, that’s quite common. His art would be the most important thing and everyone would do what they could to continue to create an atmosphere where he could create his art. I wanted to see what would happen if you put a woman in that position.
The book takes place in coastal Oregon and the setting plays such a huge role in the book. Why was that the perfect place for you to tell your story?
I’ve lived on the Oregon coast for the last six years or so, but before that I would come out here regularly and work on books. This town—which is really the town in the book, it’s almost identical with a few exceptions—is very inspirational. I’ve done, I think, my best writing here. It’s very peaceful, it’s very inspiring. [In the book] Violet shows up on the coast in the 1940s. For the purposes of the story, I had to do some research about what it was like here, just to get a handle on what she might have experienced. As it turns out, it was like a commune. (laughs) The first curator for the Portland Art Museum came here and she built a house. She started inviting other musicians, painters, and writers to live out here. That sense of creativity has remained. You feel that essence of the creative life, it’s still a big part of our community. We have an arts center here that brings in some of the most amazing and well known writers from around the country to speak and read. In fact, that was how I found this place. They invited me out back in 2010. That was when I fell in love. It felt like a creative retreat. The beauty, along with the creative vibe, made it the perfect place for me to think about a character on this pilgrimage toward finding the place where she could fully be herself, and I think that definitely reflects my own personal life.
Violet seems to have this very tangible relationship with the natural world as well. We’re thrust into it from the beginning, worrying about how this ninety-three-year-old woman can shepherd her elderly son and his wife to the hospital amid this potential tsunami.
That is the one thing we all worry about, the big one—if we’re going to get an earthquake, who’s in the tsunami zone, and who’s not. That’s a constant worry and so it seemed appropriate that I kick the book off with that right away.
And then that ends up being the least of their worries.
You think an earthquake and a tsunami is a problem? Wait till you meet my family! (laughs)
Literature is at the forefront of so many of these characters’ lives. The Good Earth played a pivotal role in Violet’s childhood, and Marilynne Robinson and Virginia Woolf’s books make frequent appearances as well.
I think a lot of that comes from being a lifelong reader and a writer for most of my adult life. I taught creative writing before I bought the bookstore. I was the co-director of what was called the Black Forest Writing Seminars at the University of Freiberg in Germany. Every summer I ran this creative writing conference and I taught novel writing there. Literature’s always been the core of who I am, but now I have this wonderful opportunity to be talking about books with other people every day that I’m in the store. I could do that in a classroom with teaching, but here it’s just the pure pleasure of, “What are you reading? Here’s what I’ve been reading.”
There’s something about being in a bookstore—especially mine, which is absolutely adorable, if I do say so myself. It’s breathtaking when you walk in. Being in the bookstore, being surrounded by stories, makes you want to talk. I put this in the book, when Violet’s in the store and she tells Quincy [the bookstore owner], “I’ve just been to the doctor and the news isn’t good.” There’s a line in there about her “feeling the rush of stories.” I feel like that too. People tell me things like I’m a bartender. They confess things all the time. I feel like it’s ripe for storytelling and for all of these things that make people want to share experiences with one another.
People are so well read in this town, it’s unbelievable. I get to have these top shelf conversations on a regular basis with people. I’m just really lucky. There’s a level of emotional richness that I have gained. There are these very crystallized moments, when someone comes in and they’re looking for a certain book. They don’t know what it is, but they know they want something, and through the course of a conversation we end up finding the perfect book. I send them away and I feel like I’ve done something really great. I just sent someone off in the world with this treasure in their hands!
I just take such comfort from books. My house is full of books. Just knowing that they’re there and if you have a thought about something, you can reach up, open up to the page, and reread something that has been meaningful to you. I wanted to sprinkle that in the book a little bit—especially with Violet, Quincy, and Penny—that that’s a part of their lives as much as it is mine.
Finally, what role has the public library played in your life?
When I was growing up, my mom was mostly a single parent and we didn’t have much money at all. We moved a lot. I went to eleven different elementary schools. We didn’t have money and we didn’t have books in my house, but the things that saved me were the public library and the school library. Those were places where I could go, I could read, I could get books, take them home, and when I was done I could go back and get more books. My worst nightmare was that we would move, I wouldn’t be able to return the books, and I would get in trouble. (laughs) I can’t say enough about libraries. Between libraries and my grandmother, they saved me. They were truly the saving grace of my childhood.